Brave new world of virtual health care.

TELUS Health Annual Conference 2020

COVID-19 has forced the adoption of virtual care in the public healthcare system—and forever revolutionized the delivery of health care in Canada.

“Virtual care is here to stay,” said Dr. Alexandra Greenhill, CEO and Chief Medical Officer, Careteam Technologies, and a panelist during the TELUS Health webinar presented live on May 27. A recording of the webinar is available below.

While the pandemic served as the catalyst for rapid adoption, the ongoing reality of physical distancing (at least until a vaccine is available), user acceptance (by both patients and healthcare providers) and the realization of improved efficiencies will solidify virtual care’s utilization throughout the healthcare system. “In-person encounters will be one option, but not the first or main option,” said Greenhill.

COVID-19 has also boosted adoption by plan sponsors, said panelist Dan Pawliw, Co-Founder and General Manager of Akira by TELUS Health, a virtual care service provider. “Many were thinking about it, and the last few months have given plan sponsors a licence to adopt it.”

Equally important, the “revelatory effect” on patients or plan members is building. “Once they use it once, they tend to use it a lot more,” said Pawliw. “On both the plan sponsor and patient side, the comfort level has accelerated.”

What is virtual care?

Panelists were quick to emphasize that virtual care is much more than videoconferencing. “People often think about virtual care or telemedicine based on the technology. But virtual care is really about being able to deliver care over space and time. It is a mindset,” said Dr. Sacha Bhatia, Chief Medical Innovation Officer, Women’s College Hospital.

Phone calls, texts, emails, video-conferencing and remote monitoring with wearable devices are all examples of virtual care. In fact, video-conferencing is not the most common application.  “About 50% of virtual care interactions are text-based,” said Pawliw.

“The efficiency gains are predominantly in texting and asynchronous messaging. Video doesn’t create efficiency gain,” noted Bhatia.

Virtual care effectively triages patients based on their unique circumstances, so that in-person visits occur only when virtual services cannot meet patients’ needs. In two to three years, panelists predicted that at least half of all health care services will be provided virtually.

Where do private payers fit in?

The historical interplay between public and private health benefit plans will continue in a more virtual world, said Pawliw. Employers with health benefit plans will continue to “augment what is publicly available because their objectives are different than the objectives of public health when we think about employee wellness, ROI, absenteeism and how they want to be perceived by employees.”

As well, plan sponsors will be able to take virtual care further because they have greater flexibility to use a platform that provides access to a full healthcare team, comprised of physicians, nurses, specialists, dietitians, mental health counsellors—the list goes on.

Panelists also discussed reimbursement models, clinical best practice guidelines and the promise of virtual care for continuity of care across all platforms (public and private). See below for the complete recording of the webinar.

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